Rhetoric and Composition: Academic Capitalism and Cheap Teachers

When I enrolled in the PhD Program in English at the CUNY Graduate Center to study Composition and Rhetoric, I was idealistic about the future of the discipline and my own place in it. I believed that Comp and Rhet (as I came to call it) was asking crucial questions that were central to the mission of higher education in America. I still believe that. But, after working in the field in a number of full-time and part-time positions over several years, my idealism has turned to despair at what I now regard as Composition’s great shame. It has left me to doubt that there is a place in the field for me and for many others like me.

As anyone who teaches college writing is probably aware, the majority of such courses are taught by contingent faculty, including adjuncts and graduate students. These workers usually receive low wages and few benefits. (Some long-term CUNY adjuncts receive health care, but even this small benefit has recently come under attack.) This is not just a local problem. Recent data shows that adjuncts now earn a national average salary of just $2,758 per course, which means teaching eight to ten courses per year results in a salary of $22,064 and $27,500. These are poverty and near-poverty wages. More recently, Josh Boldt, who compiles information on the pay rates and overall treatment of adjunct faculty on his Adjunct Project blog, has confirmed in chilling fashion what we already know: many adjuncts have no access to benefits, no role in university governance, and are rarely told if they will have classes to teach from one semester to the next.

These facts were made concrete to me shortly after I defended my dissertation. In the midst of my own happiness and relief at finally coming to the end of my long graduate school journey, I overheard a Composition teacher on the telephone in the adjunct office of a CUNY college. He was trying to get Medicaid benefits. I could not get the juxtaposition of these two events out of my mind. I’m sure this teacher never expected to find himself in that position as a college writing teacher. I had indeed graduated, but into what future?

This was not the first time I had considered the cruelty and injustice of the academy’s tiered labor system. During my years as a graduate student, however, I had successfully sidestepped those realities because there were so many wonderful things going on in the field. Being part of wonderful things makes certain indignities bearable. I have been particularly lucky to be affiliated with the CCRC (CUNY Composition and Rhetoric Community), a group of dedicated scholars and teachers from across New York City, including many of my (former) fellow students at the Graduate Center. I still marvel at the good fortune I have had to engage in many thrilling conversations about literacy acquisition, writing pedagogy, and the politics of education with these brilliant people.

The joy and sense of purpose that I derived from Composition Studies blinded me to its dark side for a time. Today, when I consider the widespread oppression of teachers of writing, I struggle to see how anything else ever mattered as much.

Disappearing Jobs

The specter of adjuncts on Medicaid haunted me in the months after my defense because I graduated during one of the worst job markets in several years. Though hiring statistics had been trending from bad to awful for decades, the 2008 MLA Staffing Report documented the accumulative carnage: more than two-thirds of all teachers in the Humanities are part-timers, teaching assistants, or other contingent faculty.

I had a solid background in Composition and Rhetoric, so there were some full-time jobs available for which I was qualified. But I noticed another troubling trend. A number of advertised positions included a substantial administrative component. Apparently, I was more likely to get a job if I was interested in supervising the low-paid, marginalized labor of others. I could be what James Sledd called a “boss compositionist” and what Joseph Harris identified as “the faculty member assigned to supervise the [Comp] droids.” Would any of the part-time teachers or tutors under my charge have to sign up for Medicaid? The thought terrified me.

I do not denigrate the efforts of WPAs or other administrators. I know this is difficult and often thankless work that is unfairly rewarded because I have done it myself. The people in these positions are not the problem. The problem is that adjunct labor in any form is not professional development; it’s not something everyone does for a while until they get a real job. This goes for graduate student TAs as well. The false notion that graduate school is a professional apprenticeship obscures the reality that student-teachers, like their adjunct colleagues, earn far less for teaching the same classes that their full-time counterparts teach. Contingency in the academy is never an apprenticeship; it is labor exploitation, plain and simple.

Knowing this, how was I to manage my own entry into full-time employment? How could I square my political commitments and my despair over the exploitation of teachers with my intellectual work and my own desire and need for a full-time job in a field I loved?

Where Can We Find Hope?

I was in the midst of trying to answer these questions when, in April 2011, I attended a talk by two veteran scholars, John Trimbur and John Brereton, at John Jay College (CUNY). I was thrilled to hear them speak. Again, I felt extremely fortunate to be a member of the CCRC, which had sponsored the event. Is there a Composition and Rhetoric group in the country that gives its students and teachers more access to luminaries in the field? I seriously doubt it.

But this essay is not about speeches by eminent scholars. Honestly, I can’t remember a single thing Trimbur and Brereton said during their official presentations. Rather, this essay is about how I left that event with the distinct and discomfiting feeling that academia was no longer for me.

During the Q and A portion of the Trimbur/Brereton event, a student from the Graduate Center’s Comp and Rhet PhD program stepped to the mic and asked a question that seemed to chill the room. “The job market is terrible right now,” she said. “What advice do you have for us? Where can we find hope?” This was a very relevant, even poignant, question. It immediately seemed to me that the subject of these scholars’ presentations ceased to matter very much compared to this student’s query. I too was very eager to hear some words of wisdom and comfort.

To my dismay, Brereton responded by advising the student to stick with her program undaunted. “If you have a Composition and Rhetoric doctorate,” he told her, “you will find a job.” Some in the audience murmured in disagreement. As for me, I was shocked at the complete ignorance of Brereton’s response. It’s not that I expected him to tell this student to choose another profession. Nor did I expect him to express the unmitigated job-market gloom that many graduate students and new PhDs know all too well. I expected, simply, the truth. Even a sugarcoated version of the truth would have been preferable to (let me just say it) an outright lie about rosy job prospects for Humanities graduates in any field.

Was Brereton truly unaware of the labor crisis in the Humanities in general and in Composition in particular? Was this prominent scholar, who had authored what is perhaps the essential history of the origin of Composition Studies, really so blatantly uninformed on the subject of who teaches Composition in American colleges these days? After all, the MLA had declared a job market crisis back in 1998, which is plenty of time for the news to trickle up to those who occupy even the loftiest towers of the academy. The shadow of contingency is everywhere. The AAUP reported in 2006 that the percentage of tenured and tenure-track faculty positions fell from 56.8 percent to 35.1 percent in three decades. (Of course, Brereton probably assumed this crisis was not relevant to Composition and Rhetoric PhDs, an issue that I address below.)

More disturbing than Brereton’s weak grasp of the facts was Trimbur’s unwillingness to correct his colleague, assuming he knew that a correction was required. It seemed to me that Trimbur was annoyed to have to respond to a job-market question at all. Such queries were a distraction from the subject matter he had come prepared to discuss, I suppose. Is this the same scholar, I wondered, who has used Marxist conceptual models to theorize the circulation of writing? When the session predictably unraveled into incredulous rebuttals by those in the room who had some passing familiarity with the Humanities job market, Trimbur was silent.

I was heartsick and furious.

The lack of good, full-time jobs for PhDs of any stripe, especially English graduates, is not a secret. I cannot believe that Trimbur and Brereton are unfamiliar with Composition scholars like Eileen Schell, whose book on the dire conditions endured by contingent faculty, those “mother-teachers,” is more than a decade old now. Nor can I fathom that Trimbur and Brereton have gone about their careers blissfully unaware of award-winning writers like Susan Miller, who famously called adjuncts “the sad women in the basement.” Have Brereton and Trimbur visited their colleges’ proverbial basements lately?

Perhaps, I told myself, feminist critiques of Composition are not on Brereton’s or Trimbur’s radar. Everyone can’t read everything, I guess. But should I accept that these scholars, who have been prominent members of the profession for decades, are unfamiliar with Richard Miller’s assessment from 1999? “Nothing can conceal the fact,” he wrote, “that at large universities most writing instruction is regularly entrusted to those without PhDs – full-timers, part-timers, advanced graduate students, and newly minted teaching assistants who have just completed their bachelor’s degrees.” That’s a pretty clear statement describing a trend that has only worsened in recent years. It may be reasonable to assume that Trimbur and Brereton are less interested in the programmatic details of academic hiring because they are focused on disciplinary theory and history, as is generally the preference of renowned scholars. Does that mean that neither had heard anything like James Sledd’s statement from almost thirty years ago that “there can be no revolution in the teaching of writing until the exploitation of teachers is ended”?

Perhaps the problem is not a lack of awareness on the part of these scholars. Maybe Trimbur and Brereton are familiar with the mountain of research documenting and lamenting our field’s growing reliance on contingent labor, but they just don’t see what all the fuss is about. Maybe they think a “revolution” in the teaching of writing is not necessary at all. Or perhaps they are revolutionary minded, but they believe improving the teaching of writing on a mass scale can be achieved under current conditions? (This is a proposition, by the way, which was soundly rejected as far back as 1912 when Edward Hopkins asked the question “Can Good Composition Teaching Be Done Under Present Conditions?” in the English Journal. The answer, even then, was “no.”) What other factors might explain Brereton’s misinformed and misleading statement and Trimbur’s perturbed silence?

The Immunity of Composition

There is another explanation for these scholars’ response to the PhD student’s question. Perhaps Trimbur and Brereton believe that Composition and Rhetoric graduates have a magical immunity to the general tragedy that unfolds at the MLA conference every winter when hundreds of new and not-so-new graduates, many with sterling resumes and shiny new suits (quite possibly purchased on credit), compete for a decreasing number of full-time positions. Sure, Brereton and Trimbur might be thinking, those who made the grand error of earning a PhD in Literature are in a bad spot, but Composition and Rhetoric folks will be okay.

I reject the notion of Composition’s exceptional status because the literature on academic contingency does not support it. In fact, a special issue of College English devoted to labor in English Studies, of which our field is a part, was published the month before the event at John Jay College, which is certainly enough time for Brereton and Trimbur to have glanced at the opening pages, if they were so inclined. The issue highlights shocking statistics that should embarrass us all. “[A]lmost three-quarters of all faculty members in higher education are now working in part-time, non-tenure-line appointments,” write Mike Palmquist and Susan Doe. This shameful state of affairs is where we find ourselves twenty-five years after the Wyoming Resolution, one of the most valiant (but failed) efforts to address the growing adjunctification of the Composition profession.

The Wyoming Resolution may have failed to produce change, but it certainly alerted everyone who was paying attention to the continuing problem of contingent employment in the field. “[F]aculty teaching courses in composition have been affected most by this growing reliance on contingent faculty,” Palmquist and Doe continue. “Nearly 70 percent of all composition courses . . . are now taught by faculty in contingent positions.” There is no silver lining for our field in these numbers. In fact, it is clear that the reproduction of this horrid system, not teaching or theorizing, is now the central work of our discipline. Perhaps Composition PhDs were better positioned once, but this is not an argument that can be made today with any credibility. It is patently ridiculous to assert that our field’s dependence on vast armies of part-time teachers does not affect the number and quality of full-time job openings in the field. It’s time to put the myth of Composition’s exceptional status within English Studies to rest, once and for all.

Is CUNY An Exception?

Perhaps, I considered, Trimbur and Brereton are under the impression that holders of PhDs from CUNY are somewhat insulated from the job-market woes that many others experience. CUNY is, from a certain perspective, where Composition and Rhetoric was born, which might make CUNY candidates more desirable. Of course, there is no evidence that CUNY graduates are having more success on the market than anyone else. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that those with CUNY diplomas are more likely to find tenure-track positions. Should that really give us comfort? Should we be relieved that a crisis that relegates the majority of writing teachers to low-paid invisibility and leaves many PhDs underemployed has not yet landed at our door? This doesn’t make me feel any better, even if it is true, which it isn’t.

I considered all of these possibilities before I settled on the reason for Brereton’s advice that seems the most likely. Faculty who occupy privileged, tenured jobs, especially veterans, often don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to adjunct labor and the crisis in the Humanities job market because they don’t have to know. They haven’t had to look for a job for so long that they don’t know what it’s like out there. This is an explanation, not an excuse. Under what conditions might such scholars be persuaded to familiarize themselves with the working conditions and job prospects of writing teachers, including those with and without doctoral degrees?

I will address that question later in this essay. First, I want to discuss the conversation that ensued at John Jay after Brereton’s shocking statement that Comp and Rhet PhDs won’t have trouble finding jobs. Various people in the audience, who understood that he was dead wrong, suggested ways to address the problem. Unfortunately, all of these suggestions are misguided because they betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the job market and how it works.

Solution #1: Veteran Faculty Should Retire to Make Room for New Hires

This is a refrain that one hears quite often. It is a very curious response to the labor crisis in the Humanities because it suggests a faith in the system as it is. Upon what foundation should such a faith be based? When I first entered graduate school, for example, I was told that all the “baby boomers” were soon going to retire in droves, which would open faculty positions for younger scholars. This prognosis is quite laughable now. I don’t blame the people who gave me this advice any more than I blame myself for believing it. Still, we must ask, why didn’t those jobs materialize?

I don’t know if baby boomers are still clinging to their faculty posts longer than anyone expected. In this economy, I certainly wouldn’t blame them. But I don’t think the employment status of the graying professoriate is the issue anyway. The truth is there is no guarantee that a veteran faculty member’s retirement will result in the university hiring even one full-time, tenure-track replacement. Does anyone really believe that college administrators, upon hearing of a professor’s retirement, get together and say, “Dr. So-and-so was making $100,000 per year, so we should go ahead and hire two new faculty members at $50,000 each to replace him”? I’d venture to say that most college administrators, with their reduced budgets and corporate mentalities, do not usually think that way. At least we cannot count on it. The process by which higher-ups greenlight a faculty hire is a kind of academic alchemy that bears little relationship to whether anyone retired or not.

Solution #2: We Should Stop Admitting So Many Students Into English PhD Programs

This is an infuriating supply-side response to the dearth of full-time academic positions in English. Trying to address academic contingency by admitting fewer people into doctoral programs is like saying the solution to the outsourcing of autoworker jobs in Detroit is to cut off the supply of autoworkers. That will teach those auto company executives to stop offshoring jobs!

Such a solution is similarly absurd in academia where the idea is that colleges aren’t hiring, so we should give them fewer people to choose from, and then more of “us” will find jobs. Is this a fair assumption based on the facts? How long would it take before a reduction in the number of people earning PhDs in English/Composition and Rhetoric would actually be felt in the job market? Ten years? Twenty? Never? How do we tell the difference between the “us” who deserve admittance to PhD programs and decent jobs afterwards and the “them” who don’t?

I know some on the left support this idea. I understand the impulse not to admit people into doctoral programs that take up a decade of their lives when there are no jobs for them in the end. And, in the short term, what departments decide to do in the interest of their own students is up to them. What I’m saying is that reducing the size of PhD programs is not a labor strategy. I think what we really need is a plan to develop and deploy our class power as students and as teachers.

Furthermore, can we be certain that colleges will not continue to enact policies that further erode demand for full-time jobs even in if we narrow the PhD pipeline? Mr. College President could decide to close down whole departments, which would leave a lot of PhDs out in the cold, whether they are part of smaller cohort of graduates or not. Of course, this idea also assumes we could come to a national consensus that curtailing access to doctoral programs is desirable as a labor strategy, a doubtful prospect. Professors at PhD-granting institutions need students in their classes, after all. And institutions of all kinds still need cheap teachers to staff Comp 101. As Marc Bousquet writes, “what administrators want is what administrators want, and what can us chickens do about that?”

Solution #3: Newbies Have to Work Harder These Days. But the Jobs are Still There for People Who Do Everything Right.

This insulting “solution” reflects a distorted worldview in which an individual is totally responsible for whether or not an employer hires her for a job and whether that job pays a living wage. In this fantasy, mysterious and divine market forces determine a worker’s value and we all accept the result as fair and just. This view is not limited to academia. Many unemployed and underemployed people are being told just now that they need to get the skills that employers want if they expect to make a living, get health benefits, and retain a shred of dignity in old age. Yes, it’s up to the worker to make work pay! Though many economists reject this theory, it has achieved golden-rule status in academia and elsewhere. Barbara Ehrenreich skewered such lunacy in the 90′s in her book, Bait and Switch, which is about the plight of unemployed middle-class professionals.

“The [job] seeker soon encounters ideologies that are explicitly hostile to any larger, social understanding of his or her situation. . . . [T]here was only us, the  job seekers. It was we who had to change. In milder form, the constant  injunction to maintain a winning attitude carries the same message: look inward, not outward; the world is entirely what you will it to be.”

It’s not the “system” or the job market or academic hiring practices! It’s YOU! Do everything right, job seeker, and you will be okay! This advice comes with an added sting in academia. If earning a PhD (or an M.A. degree for that matter), with all its attendant sacrifices, does not already indicate that one has done “everything right,” then I don’t know what does.

Here are some of the messages graduate students hear, ad infinitum, as part of the standard advice to work more and harder to earn the right to a compete for a chance not to be on Medicaid like the rest of the poor adjuncts.

English/Comp and Rhet PhDs will be okay if they:

  • Publish more. (You must publish a couple of articles or a book before going on the job market. How one is supposed to manage this while finishing a dissertation, teaching, and eating regular meals is not discussed.)
  • Teach a lot. (You will need to teach as much as possible so you can put all those courses on your cv and look really impressive to hiring committees. How one is supposed to do this while also publishing more, finishing the dissertation, and eating regular meals, is not discussed.)
  • Happily accept any position, even one off the tenure track. (Once you get your first job, then you can publish a lot and move on to greener academic pastures eventually. Do you have a partner who does not like the idea of moving across the country so you can accept a job that you do not really want? This scenario is not discussed.)
  • Present at more conferences. (Of course, you will probably have to do this on your own dime since you have not yet proven that you deserve institutional affiliation and/or funding for the conferences that you need to attend to prove that you deserve institutional affiliation and/or funding.)

These platitudes, incommensurate as they are with each other and material reality, constitute advice to eager up-and-comers in the category of “do more and work harder for less because that is the way the world is now.” The problem is that such advice sends the message that individuals are responsible for the economy. Didn’t find a job? You didn’t publish enough; you didn’t teach enough; you didn’t want to live in Idaho bad enough. It’s a devious way of letting the system off the hook by telling us that where we find ourselves, after years of intense academic study and various monumental accomplishments, is our own fault.

The Real Problem: In Which It Turns Out that Academic Capitalism is Just Like Regular Capitalism

The previous discussion of disappearing full-time jobs in Composition and Rhetoric allows me to define some terms. What do I mean by the word “system” that I have been using so far? Viewing contingency as a systemic problem means acknowledging that we can’t make everything better by cutting off the supply of PhDs, by encouraging veterans to retire, or by working harder for table scraps. And we certainly aren’t getting anywhere by waiting patiently for the field’s éminence grise to voluntarily develop an accurate grasp of the facts.

Yes, I am bringing up the Trimbur/Brereton debacle again.

Even though I find their unwillingness to frankly address the greatest crisis in the field appalling and unpardonable, I do not think Trimbur and Brereton are personally to blame for the general lack of interest in labor contingency from those who benefit the most from it. However, I focus on them because systemic problems are reflected in the attitudes and perspectives of individuals. Was it Upton Sinclair who wrote, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it”? No one is immune from this diagnosis.

So what can be done? As many scholars, from Richard Ohmann to Stanley Aronowitz to Donna Strickland, have argued, we need to see the academy in general and Comp and Rhet in particular from a global economic perspective. Within this framework, Humanities PhDs are workers within a larger economy in which good jobs have been disappearing for decades in exchange for an itinerant, unstable, low-wage workforce. In academia that means adjuncts.

To see the problem of adjuncts on Medicare as part of a global trend, it helps, as always, to have a theory. (By the way, an adjunct on Medicare is not a “problem” for capitalism at all. Foisting an employee’s health care costs onto the public is a very good deal for the private sector.) That is why I turn now to David Harvey’s theory of the internal contradictions of capitalism. Harvey’s work helps illuminate the macroeconomics of academic hiring, and he proposes some ways to address capitalism’s excesses which are relevant to academia. So let’s start by defining another term that is important to my argument.

What is a Crisis?

The MLA says the Humanities are in crisis. What is a crisis anyway? Harvey explains that a crisis “is nothing less than a massive phase of dispossession of assets.” This definition is important because it illustrates that the problem is not a reduction in the number of assets, which is the lie we are endlessly fed in our age of austerity. Rather, a crisis occurs when certain sectors of society are dispossessed of assets they once claimed. Dispossession happens, in other words, when bankers and politicians use so-called budget deficits to raid public pension funds for speculative investments, when public land is seized by eminent domain, or when public schools are labeled “failing” so that they can be privatized by profiteers at Goldman Sachs.

This system works fine in theory, though, as Terry Eagleton writes, “the [capitalist] system has also proved incapable of breeding affluence without creating huge swathes of deprivation alongside it.” In addition to the minor issue of plunging hundreds of millions of people around the world into daily poverty, capitalism is also crisis prone because it must never stop accumulating resources, including money and land, to further its expansion. “Capitalism,” Harvey writes in The Enigma of Capital, is a “process in which money is perpetually sent in search of more money.” This insatiable need to gobble up more stuff ensures that capitalism will always run into barriers to growth. Capitalists earn profits, which they reinvest to earn bigger profits, which they reinvest again. This cycle continues as long as those reinvestments result in a compound growth rate of at least 3% per year. Once the growth rate falls below three percent, Harvey says, a crisis ensues, like the kind that precipitates a massive bailout of Wall Street banks at public expense, for example. But remember, a crisis is not a reduction of assets; it is a period in which assets are taken from one place and moved to another, presumably more profitable, location.

The problem is that, since the 1970′s, capitalists are running out of places to invest their surplus capital. In a globalized world, the economic system cannot reproduce itself at the rate of 3% per year forever. Barriers to growth include technology, the environment, and access to lines of credit. Capital constantly needs to circumvent these barriers to assure its survival. For example, if laborers get together and demand higher wages and equal treatment from their employers under threat of a strike, this represents a barrier to capital accumulation that must be surmounted at all costs.

Adjuncts and the Global Economy: Circumventing the Labor Barrier

Where does academic contingency come in? First of all, we must understand that the problem of academic hiring is not a lack of jobs per se. That is the symptom, not the disease. A pool of contingent laborers has been created by global capitalism as a way to get around labor barriers to expansion. A reserve army of the unemployed, as Marx called it, is required for capitalism to survive, which in academia translates as cheap teachers.

Let me further explain the connection between academic labor and global capitalism. Colleges, like any business, are entities in which the majority of workers do not own the institutions where they are employed. Rather, higher education workers exchange their labor power for wages. One barrier to the growth of academic capitalism, then, is solidarity among workers, or what Harvey also calls the “culture of the workplace.” In order for the American higher education system to grow, as it has done for many decades, increasing numbers of workers are needed. From the point of view of capitalists, the majority must labor for low wages and on contingent contracts in order to ensure maximum flexibility for capital. This is why some critics have called academia a “pyramid scheme” in which privileged tenured faculty, and those William Deresiewicz calls the “immiserated proletariat,” are both necessary for capital to function. Here’s how Harvey explains it:

“[I]n a desperate bid to exert and sustain control over the labour process, the capitalist has to mobilise any social relation of difference, any distinction within the social division of labour, any special cultural preference or habit, both to prevent the inevitable commonality of position in the workplace being consolidated into a movement of social solidarity and to sustain a fragmented and divided workforce.”

In other words, one strategy that capitalists employ to control labor is the enforcement of a tiered system in which workers are encouraged to see themselves as fundamentally different from their colleagues (that is, if they see each other at all).

Trimbur and Brereton’s comments (or lack thereof) illustrate how successful academic capitalism has been in exploiting “relations of difference” amongst academic workers. As I explained above, Trimbur and Brereton are not mean people who don’t care about adjuncts. Rather, we can see their lack of awareness as a reasonable outcome of what Harvey calls the “tactics of capital” to control labor via fragmentation and division.

This is not about the blindness of a few elite professors (or, for that matter, the willful naiveté of PhDs who believe they will win the academic job market lottery by being more deserving than everyone else). In fact, as Harvey notes, “class is a role, not a label that attaches to persons.” Indeed, many full-time professors in low-status institutions are far from the privileged beneficiaries of the upward flow of capital. Rather than try to identify who the individual culprits are, then, we need to continuously assert that this is a systemic problem that originates in the necessity of capital to control labor by ensuring that a few people get everything, most get nothing, and those two groups don’t talk to each other very much, or even see themselves as part of the same profession.

Contingency is Composition: Where Do We Start?

Academic contingency is a systemic problem, but that doesn’t mean that we can let Trimbur and Brereton off the hook. In fact, getting comparatively privileged members of our profession on board the anti-contingency train is a crucial battle strategy. At the very least, senior Composition scholars must be responsible for not spreading misinformation. Harvey says that we can’t fix capitalism by “tinkering around the edges.” We must address the inherent risk in a system in which a surplus of low-wage workers is necessary for our global mode of production to survive. “We can’t address the problem of poverty,” Harvey writes, “without addressing the problem of the accumulation of wealth.” Another way to put it is that we can’t address the problem of contingency without insisting that the elite among us get the facts right and figure out whose side they’re on.

How does getting more senior scholars to speak in favor of living wages and benefits for their contingent colleagues help the cause? Harvey explains that a new anti-capitalist (read: anti-contingency) movement should be a “co-revolutionary moment, not a storming of the barricades.” If you’re a full-time faculty member in an English department, your adjunct co-workers are not going to come and beat down your door and beg for your support. They shouldn’t have to. They are too overworked and nervous about getting invited back the next semester. Tenured and tenure-track faculty, especially those in the most privileged locations, must become active allies in the fight for better working conditions and pay for all teachers of writing. “The disconnected and alienated,” Harvey argues, “[must] have an alliance with the deprived and the dispossessed.” There are always ways to subvert the system, and tenured faculty must do more in their own institutions and professional organizations. At the very least, they must be honest about the problem.

Another step in forging an alliance between the discontented and the dispossessed is to reward those academics working to illuminate the grotesque labor conditions endured by part-timers. For example, Megan Fulwiler and Jennifer Marlow have made a documentary called “Con Job” which highlights the plight of adjuncts. The film makes the crucial point that contingency is not a qualitative distinction. Rather, it signals only a differential status of employment. That is to say, these filmmaker-scholars shatter the myth that adjuncts deserve their fate when they are actually human cast-offs of the churning capitalist expansion machine.

In addition to promoting and rewarding anti-contingency work, our professional organizations must insist that our field’s journals devote a larger number of their pages to the study of how contingency affects the teaching of writing. Brad Hammer calls this new arena of scholarship “Contingency Studies.” Hammer explains that such a move is necessary because “our professional discourse has moved away from pedagogy to embrace the work, theory, and writings of the minority elite within composition.” Scholarship on the relationship between adjunct labor and global capitalism can no longer be an academic sideline project granted a few pages of “newsletter” space in CCC. Furthermore, groups like the CUNY Composition and Rhetoric Community have done a commendable job providing support and a sense of belonging to Comp and Rhet students and other members. But until the CCRC also becomes a labor movement, it will be of limited usefulness to the majority of teachers of writing at CUNY.  Organizations like CCRC must do more to ensure that Contingency Studies becomes the central intellectual work of the field because, as I argued above, reproducing a tiered labor system is already the field’s central disciplinary function.

Finally, I’m convinced that change can only come if Composition’s intellectual work is not allowed to further descend into what Marc Bousquet calls “management science.”

‘Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss’

As scholars such as Joseph Harris, Leo Parascondola, and Tony Scott know, Composition and Rhetoric PhDs are often hired as bosses for academic capitalism. In fact, there is now a de facto rule that most Compositionists will spend at least part of their careers managing and supervising adjuncts and other low-wage higher education workers. We must ask ourselves if this is what Composition and Rhetoric scholars ought to be doing with their hard-earned degrees and big brains. Marc Bousquet explains how our field’s intellectual endeavors serve the interest of capitalism, which, again, requires a reserve army of low-wage workers to survive and perpetuate itself.

“Clearly, the emergence of rhetoric and composition into some form of (marginal) respectability and (institutional-bureaucratic) validity has a great deal to do with its usefulness to upper management in legitimating the practice of deploying a revolving labor force of graduate employees and other contingent teachers to teach writing. The discipline’s enormous usefulness to academic capitalism [includes] delivering cheap teaching, training a supervisory class for the cheap teachers, and producing a group of intellectuals who theorize and legitimate this scene of managed labor.”

As a dynamic and creative force, academic capitalism has absorbed the intellectual work of Composition in the service of the continued exploitation of teachers of writing. Our field is useful in this scheme because earning a PhD in the field is perceived as a credential for managing the low-wage labor of those who occupy the academic pyramid’s bottom levels.

What can be done? Rhetoric and Composition scholars who direct programs must do more to insist that a majority of those they hire and supervise are full-time workers who earn fair wages and benefits. I know this is a difficult proposition, and perhaps impossible in some settings. But what kind of field will we have if Compositionists continue to allow their labor to be co-opted by those who perpetuate the oppression of the majority of writing teachers? Many writing program directors are not in a position to make change alone. That is why our discipline, and our professional organizations, must vigorously support them if they choose to take such a stand.

Finally, my experience at the Brereton/Trimbur event has convinced me that those who occupy places of relative privilege in our field’s decreasing number of tenured positions must educate themselves about academic contingency and do more. A lot more. Higher education must have a new labor movement that is anti-capitalist in orientation and that seeks to build coalitions with precarious workers in other sectors of the economy. The emergence of Occupy Wall Street has opened the door. We must not let the opportunity pass us by. As Nate Brown wrote in his essay about privatization at the University of California, “the only way the university struggle can isolate itself is by failing or refusing to acknowledge that it is also an anti-capitalist struggle, that it is also a class struggle.”

I admit that I am not optimistic.

The Academic Curiosity Shop

Let’s face it, many of our field’s eminent scholars ignore the class struggle in higher education and the shameful low-wage teaching trap that ensnares many bright and deserving graduates because Rhet Comp needs those teachers to reproduce the game for the next round of players. Established faculty who have the power to get their words in the field’s top journals and win places on popular conference panels can no longer be let off the hook for declining to advocate for workers in the academic basement.

A recent College English article, by Jim Cocola, frames the issue as a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots. The result is not pretty for traditional faculty.

“For if the American professoriate has never been a closed shop in the traditional union sense, it remains a guild, albeit a diminished one, whose tenured and tenure-track members are increasingly old and, increasingly, curiosities, occupying a dubious position somewhere between a self-propagating administration, on the one hand, and a rapidly proliferating casualization, on the other.”

Brereton and Trimbur, and other established scholars who do not vehemently challenge the labor system that funds their own privilege, are the “curiosities” that Cocola describes.

But there is a way back to true relevance. Harvey’s theory of capitalism’s road to crisis suggests a new task for those who are in a better position than most to demand change. It is “the task of the educated discontented,” he writes, “to magnify the subaltern voice so that attention can be paid to the circumstances of exploitation and repression.” The well-known voices in our field must magnify the voices of their oppressed colleagues.  A real “Contingency Studies” ought to start with the field’s veterans, and it must include taking action at the local and national level. As prominent members of the profession, it’s their responsibility to advocate for the next generation of scholars and reclaim the soul of higher education. These emissaries guard the gates of an academic discipline that is disintegrating. It’s time they recognized it.

35 thoughts on “Rhetoric and Composition: Academic Capitalism and Cheap Teachers

  1. Pingback: Rhetoric and Composition: Academic Capitalism and Cheap Teachers | Ann Larson « Things I grab, motley collection

  2. Ann, this is one of the most engaging essays I have read since graduate school. As you point out, the Marxist ideological hypocrisy present particularly in English departments is astonishing. How can we possibly teach our students to critique power structures and two-tiered labor systems when we are passively participating in one of our own?! Thank you for writing this fabulous essay.


  3. Wow. Thank you so much, Josh. I have admired your work on the adjunct project for a while, so this means quite a lot. I left adjuncting in 2010 in protest, but I am still involved in education issues via OWS. If I can help with the A.P. in any way, let me know.

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  5. Ann – Thanks for writing this! You outline the problem of the dwindling academic job market so clearly. I appreciate your direct debunking of the “myths” that many TT profs still believe in and tell to their rightfully anxious graduate students. I’m still angry at the elite faculty members who told me during my MA to pursue a PhD and “not to worry” because a wave a faculty retirement was coming (yep – that old nugget). What they neglected to add was that most outgoing TT jobs were being replaced by short-term, financially unstable, sessional labour.

    Half-way through grad school, I decided to leave academia after I completed my PhD in Literature (a “grand mistake” indeed – ha!) and I don’t regret leaving. At all.

    I have actively encouraged my old university department to start advocating for change and offer better support to grads (in terms of preparing them for non-academic work, since that is the most likely future). Change is so slow, blocked by endless committee meetings, clueless or uncaring TT profs, the administration, etc.

    Clearly the system of higher education is in a state of crises – it is totally unethical for profs to espouse leftist ideals of education, while ignoring completely their compliance to keeping the system of exploitation going.

  6. Dear Kathryn,
    Thank you for your response. Leaving academia is a hard thing to do for many, and it takes real guts. Since taking on non-academic employment myself, I have realized what is obvious: adjuncts are not alone in their labor plight. Many workplaces are sites of part-time, low-wage or contract work where people are afraid to speak out. I’ve become convinced that we have to join forces with others outside academia who work in similar circumstances. I also think a nationwide adjunct walk-out is in order . . .

  7. Pingback: Academic Capitalism and the Shame of It All | The Professor Is In

  8. This piece should be published in any number of several prominent venues. I must say it would be nice to hear something from the country’s university administrators on their justification for labor contingency, even if it serves to confirm our previous understandings. A better question would be: why isn’t there such contingency in the administrative sector of the university?

  9. Wow. Your essay is a beautiful piece of writing that shows how capitalism is interwoven in the academy, and how the laborers suffer. It should also be required reading for anthropologists, especially those who teach Marxist theories. I was also fed the “baby boomers will retire” lie when I got a master’s degree in 1995; when I returned for a PhD in 2004, I knew then it was a lie. Now I am fed the lie about working harder and writing more. With 7 publications, 4 more on the way, 35 conference presentations, 9 courses prepped, taught, and ready to go, including online and graduate seminars, what else can I do? I wait to win the lottery.

    • “when I returned for a PhD in 2004, I knew then it was a lie.” – why did you go for a Ph.D. then? Usually it takes about 6 years to get one, with no guaranteed success. Why would you spend 6 years of your life to be qualified for a work that is so financially unrewarding?

  10. This is a wonderful essay and should be required reading for faculty of all levels across the country.
    I do want to point out one issue though: until 1991 the idea that the Baby Boomers were going to retire in droves was not a lie, or even a misrepresentation of the situation. In 1991 the Age Discrimination in Employment Act was modified via the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1991. As a result of those laws universities found that they were no longer able enforce mandatory retirement ages. It took a few years for that information to sink in, but I don’t think anyone was being dishonest if they assumed – prior to 1996 or so – that there would be large-scale retirements in the mid to late 90s.
    The economy was going great guns at that point as well, and most academics did not yet notice the new trend towards hiring more contingent faculty. (The ideology of that trend can be traced along many paths, but economics has very little to do with it.)
    If people told you that there was going to be large-scale retirements and hiring after about 1996 or so then, yes, they were either lying or being willfully ignorant. Your Upton Sinclair quote is apposite here.
    You essay is wonderful as I said, but making punching bags out of senior faculty who came of age in a very different economic and political context does not help your otherwise very powerful arguments.
    Thank you for writing this.

    • Thanks Michael. I do not mean to use veteran faculty as a punching bag simply because they entered the academy at a different time. I am only speaking about a relatively small minority who are in the position to insist (for lack of a better word) that the field’s journals and professional organizations do more to address the adjunct labor crisis. These faculty should also be organizing on their campuses and doing more to educate themselves about the working conditions of their so-called colleagues in the academic basement. Of course, the economy is not their fault. But that is not the point. Who else should advocate for contingent teachers if not comparatively privileged veterans? I don’t want to shame anyone or make this personal, but adjuncts (who, again, teach the majority of college writing courses) have been shamed and isolated for decades. The labor crisis in the academy is so dire that we need to move past hurt feelings and arguments about when the problem actually became one. It’s time for serious, dedicated action. And I believe such action requires the commitment of tenured faculty who have benefited (often through no fault of their own) from the horrid system that mirrors larger trends in the global economy.

  11. Thanks, Ann, for a much-needed commentary. I am at the end of a career that started with the renaissance of writing studies in the late 70s and early 80s. I am now that soon-to-retire comp and rhetoric prof who will not be replaced by a newly minted PhD. I have spent 30+years trying to make writing matter in my institution, only to see it more marginalized now than ever. I could but will not engage in a righteous rant about that, one that would focus on the absurdity of under-funding, under-staffing, and under-valuing writing research and teaching in a social institution that depends on writing to conduct its business.

    But I do want to raise what I see as a central and damning paradox at the heart of rhet and comp’s history, one that I think explains some of the situation you describe: to attract funding and status, we were willing to play along with those who saw us as mechanics or technicians – the folks down in the basement who could fix comma splices, undangle modifiers, and repair those horribly deficient non-native writers of English. We knew that wasn’t what we really did, or what we primarily did, and we would make the occasional pitch for a broader vision of writing, but as out comp courses multiplied and our tutorial services became overwhelmed, we reassured administrators and colleagues that we could make student writing “better,” without quibbling too much about the difference between what they though “better” meant and what we though it meant. And, of course, as you point out so well, the business of writing required labor as well as capital, and to support our belief in rhet and comp’s higher calling, we insisted on highly trained workers. The glut of workers thus prepared is more evidence that our half-hearted attempts to raise writing into a discipline continues to falter and has, perhaps, failed.

    Again, thanks for your essay.

  12. Thank you for a well written article. I would add that the next phase of the teaching profession, or perhaps the next step down, is the proliferation of online courses and degrees, especially those by private education businesses (e.g., UoP). And taught by… who knows? Perhaps not even the current adjuncts. I can envision global sweat shop call centers taking on these jobs. Not that online education is inherently bad, but it can be made to fit well with the sort of tiered labor system described.

  13. Pingback: The Devil’s Bargain in Composition and Rhetoric | Ann Larson

  14. Great essay.

    The only problem I can see is that the solution you propose seems to be more of the same. A “Contingency Studies”? More pseudo problems for grad students (of which I am one) to blather about while living below the poverty line? This seems to me to be the opposite of what is needed.

    There are some problems whose only solution is destruction.

  15. Wonderful essay.

    The two-tier system was most likely always exploitative, but with the unprecedented expansion of the lower tier (the 99%, shall we say) and the shrinking of the higher tier (the 1%), we see the significance of the gap in its starkest relief yet.

    Administrators are reaping the benefits of creating conditions in which they get the pick of the litter to constitute this 1%, and shuffle the rest into the 99% category. There is no necessary or inherent difference between a 1%-er or a 99%-er except that the latter toils in the degraded condition that your essay brings to light: poverty, contingency, no health insurance, dead-endedness, no respect. (I feel a Virginia Woolf essay would be most apt right here.) We are mired in the fetid clutches of the narrative that if one really “deserved” it, if one sacrificed enough, one could secure that coveted 1% membership. American capitalism says, the “undeserving” can rot; what we do not “deserve” is not teaching work itself, but the opportunity to teach in decent, healthy working conditions. (I struggle to see how anyone who has completed an advanced degree, and gathered years of classroom teaching experience in the process, can be dismissed as “undeserving” of robust wages, insurance, respect, and the prospect of a career.)

    Perhaps those of us in CUNY or similar have experienced this tiered reality a lot longer and more starkly: we belong to programs long underfunded, and often adjunct as instructors on record for full-time course loads from the first year on, uninsured until we can fulfill the consecutive semesters required to “earn” health benefits, to fund the bulk of our own shelter, food, and conference travel. We have been working as rankless, replaceable drones in order to afford to perform our unpaid work (coursework, research, conferencing, publishing). We have been treading water in this destructive narrative forever.

  16. I’m sympathetic to calls for effort from the folks at the top of the pyramid, but what about the folks at the bottom? Undergraduates who are making the decision to pursue a PhD should probably be doing some more due diligence to figure out what’s entailed and what the rewards are.

    Students who’ve spent four years in a department (and are considering trying to join a similar department) should’ve been looking around and asking questions about how things work — “Gee, why are only a few new tenure-track professors?” These are folks who are adults, with four years of rich education in the way the world works; they shouldn’t be able to fall back on, “But the senior professors painted a rosy picture!”

    All in all, it’s surely a messed up system, and we desperately need to reform it. I love your ideas, and it’ll definitely help to make more people aware of what’s going on! (And, yeah, I’m bitter. After watching my parents’ careers in academia, I had no trouble deciding that, big brain or no, I would not pursue a PhD.)

  17. Pingback: What have we signed up for? (Or, Occupy College Rd?) | Matt Welch: On Education

  18. Thanks for writing this! It’s a tour de force! Forgive me if I missed it, but I don’t see any links here to the Rebecca Schuman-Tenured Radical-Steven Krause thing of this past week. Schuman critiqued an example of job market abuse involving a mishandled search UC Riverside English, Tenured Radical tone-shamed her for a lack of ‘civility’ and too much rage, and then this Steven Krause weighed in saying that Schuman’s whole problem is that she didn’t do a Ph.D. in Comp/Rhet where everything (including the job market) is JUST FINE. Seriously, Krause is claiming that THERE IS NO JOB CRISIS IN COMP/RHET! And all of us who complain about the imploding humanities job market are making a sloppy, unwarranted generalization about the humanities, which does NOT include Comp/Rhet. ( http://stevendkrause.com/)


    On a related note, when veteran faculty like the Tenured Radical write tone-deaf, condescending, finger-wagging, elitist crap like she did in the piece referred to above (Called Job Market Rage Redux) it is extremely hard not to make them punching bags, or indeed to imagine them as any kind of real allies.

  19. I really cant imagine this kind of problems facing Teachera in England. Imagine in Brazil. The capitalist sistem can be the problem but the any option avaiable has no compromise with Democracy. We still can talk here but its impossible in places like Argentina, Russia, etc.

  20. Very well written essay on the plight of adjuncts. I too am an adjunct at a community college (where the pay is abysmally low) and an academic librarian full-time. The job market is equally tight and I hear the same comments from established librarians: “work harder and have a positive attitude”, “librarians will retire en masse in a few years”, and “do all the professional development you can on your own dime”, and the best one “get a 2nd master’s degree”. All of these things are unattainable for the average MLIS grad (or humanities grad for that matter). Don’t know what the solution is…..

  21. Pingback: End of 2013 Mega Link Dump – All Links Must Go! | Gerry Canavan

  22. Pingback: How the Tenured are to the Job Market as White People are to Racism | The Professor Is In

  23. But, of course, faculty are not bosses in any way that connects with actual Marxist or anticapitalist analysis. The professors are unionized labor, and they are subject to the whims of capital like all labor. The bosses are the administrators, the presidents, the boards of trustees, the governors. They are the ones who created the crisis and they are the ones who perpetuate it. That’s just reality.

    So you can direct your anger where it actually belongs, and maybe contribute to solidarity that could raise the living conditions of all involved. Or you can continue to direct your anger against the unionized faculty, and in so doing, do the dirty work of the administrators that way. The latter can certainly hurt the tenured, but I see no meaningful way it can improve the lives of contingent faculty. So the question is, which do you want?

    • Hi and thanks for reading and commenting on this post. I agree with your point that tt faculty are not the “bosses” who are //really// in charge. But it seems to me that a not insignificant part of the problem is the (apparent) ignorance and apathy displayed by many tenured faculty (especially those scholars in Comp/Rhet who entered the field decades ago). Their silence can no longer be brushed aside in the interest of theoretical purity. In fact, insisting that those in a position to speak out do so and demanding that they, at the very least, not spread misinformation seems to me to be perfectly in keeping with an anti-capitalist analysis, broadly speaking.

  24. Pingback: aduncts and theories of politics | Fredrik deBoer

  25. Pingback: A Great Essay on Contingent Teaching in Composition | Charlene Y. Kwon

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  28. Pingback: Some links relating to contract faculty | Whiteboard Workout

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